A Tip of the Hat

By Nina Piorkowski

A passionate collector and store owner shares the history of millinery.

I’m an East Coast native who moved to Gilbert a few years ago. Among other things, I brought to Arizona a passion for vintage hats.

It all started with a stroll through a Goodwill store. I found a vintage hat and was surprised that with my extensive fashion knowledge, I knew so little about hats. I researched and hunted for more hats, and I was hooked! They are such an integral part of fashion history and so often overlooked.

It’s hard to imagine a time when hats were so important, but they were once.

In the 1930s, the hat’s role was at first a small add-on, an accessory. They were perky, small and tilted. Elsa Schiaparelli’s collaboration with Salvadore Dali changed the history of the hat in fashion. Their famous shoe hat turned the world’s attention to the hat and designers and milliners everywhere followed her lead and produced “shock value” hats. Many were not as dramatic as the shoe hat, but whimsical and sure to turn heads.

The 1930s showcased the talents of Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, New York’s Hattie Carnegie and Sally Victor and French-born American milliner Lilly Dache.

Hollywood also had an effect on hat fashion. The film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind, was the most notable. Walter Plunkett was the costume designer for the film, and created all 40 of Scarlett O’Hara’s outfits, most of them with glorious hats. Up to this point, women’s idea of fashion in the 1930s was long, silky gowns. After the release of the film, women rushed for corsets, scarves, and of course, hats.

Hats came to their own during the 1940s. Almost every style, shape and material was showcased during this decade. Hat styles were influenced by WWII and hat materials like wool and felt were the only items not rationed. This is apparent in the plethora of styles.

The popular styles of the 1930s continued, such as the snood, headscarf (both of which are practical for the working woman) and the turban, which made a glorious appearance and was not only practical because it hid dirty hair or curlers, but was also glamorous.

Carmen Miranda helped popularize the turban significantly. The turban could be made out of any available fabric and rayon and velvet turned the style into an evening look.

Practicality became key for hats during this period. Hair combs and clips suddenly were invaluable to the hat wearer and nothing that took lots of time arranging on one’s head survived.

Cartwheel hats made a big impact, as well. It was a wow factor for women – you couldn’t buy a new dress but you could purchase a new hat and feel like you had a whole new outfit. Also, flowers, feathers, buttons and ribbons made a delightful mark on the 1940s styles. So did color. Vibrant hues danced on the heads of women; they were a morale booster of the most wonderful kind during worrisome times.

After the war, hat shops popped up everywhere and department stores expanded their hat shops. Lilly Dache reigned supreme and supplied many Hollywood styles on film. The 1950s was the last decade women wore hats daily. It was a staple of a woman’s wardrobe. There were flowers, pillboxes, berets, bonnets, hats for church, Sunday outings, funerals and cocktail parties.

In the 1960s, hats gave way to big, bold hair styles.

In 1957, the Catholic Church announced that head coverings were not necessary. Hats became the folly of youth. Young models in fashion magazines sported haute couture styles: the bucket, beret, tall and bold. Suddenly, hats were considered old-fashioned and unnecessary.

Hair took center stage and bigger, bolder hairstyles were adapted by women of all ages. The designers who reigned in the decades before had retired and many themselves stated they had stopped wearing hats.

Hollywood reflected this trend, although we have notable examples of Audrey Hepburn in her Givenchy-designed styles. Jackie Onassis’s pink Chanel suit and matching pink pillbox hat defined the era elegantly.

Over the following decades, hats didn’t enjoy a major comeback. Today, they are sought by collectors, vintage lifestyle enthusiasts and actors’ studios.

I sell authentic vintage hats on eBay to this market of shoppers in the U.S. and across the seas.

During speaker engagements, I spread the word on these once ubiquitous hair accessories. It’s enough work to prepare for a presentation, but it’s even harder when you have to lug a 6-foot tall mannequin. Yes, Kate the mannequin is my muse and she travels with me to guest lectures. Kate is pretty — she’s a giant Barbie doll on wheels — and each time I acquire a hat, I can’t wait to place it jauntily on her head and take photos from different angels.

Did I mention that it’s hard to travel with a mannequin? But I wouldn’t have it any other way: People love seeing her and I often dress her in vintage outfits that include a vintage hat.

Write to Nina Piorkowski at oohilovethatstore@gmail.com or you can visit her hats at stores.ebay.com/oohilovethatstore.